Monday, August 29, 2011

The Author's Voice

What I'm reading: Blue Heaven, by C.J. Box

A reminder. I'm giving away e-books for a limited time. If you want one, don't delay. There's a link to the post in the Deals & Steals tab (or scroll down to Sunday's post). And, if I don't respond immediately, it's because I'm out of town for a couple of days. Be patient; I promise to honor all requests.

While at a recent writing seminar, I met several people who had attended the presentation I gave for a local book club. One of them said after hearing me speak, she read one of my books. Her comment was, "You write the same way you talk."

And I think that sums up my author's "voice."

I've discussed voice before, and since Hubster and I are taking off for our "official" anniversary celebration today, I'm going to repeat some points from other posts I've done on voice several years ago.

From what I understand, voice develops as an author writes. I judge the growth of my voice with the increasing ease of writing narrative. Not dialogue, because that is someone else's voice on the page—the character's.

Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women, no matter what job each has. When I write my male characters' dialogue, I always go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

But all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break—that's the author. And that's where the intangibles lie. When I was starting, and I'd enter contests, I'd get very disparate feedback from judges. Another author told me it meant I had a strong voice, which might or might not appeal to a reader.

One exercise we've done in workshops is to choose a picture from many provided by the instructor. Based on the picture, each person writes a brief paragraph or two based on what they "see". Then, everyone swaps pictures with someone next to them and repeats the exercise. As participants share what they've written, the different voices become clear. One will find something humorous, one will see the same picture as dark and ominous. No two "voices" are the same.

Can anyone confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she's writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her "In Death" futuristics as JD Robb.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you're reading. Find a passage that's filled with narrative. How does the author deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there's an outsider taking over? If it's a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it's serious, the author shouldn't be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he's likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

Which brings me to another thought. When I was in high school, we were required to discuss the "style" of all the books and stories we read. A student asked the teacher to define "style." He said, "It's the words the author chooses to use." Which sums it up pretty well for me. Perhaps we should use that term for the author's voice, to differentiate it from the characters' dialogue.

Elmore Leonard points out that the essence of being a good writer is keeping yourself off the page. So if it sounds 'writerly' it needs to be cut.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Marcos Villatoro. His subject: Love and Murder Walk Hand-in-Hand. You'll definitely want to come back.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Nice reminders on voice...and Happy Anniversary!

Jemi Fraser said...

Hope you have a great time on your anniversary celebration!

Thanks for the tips :)

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! And thanks for the tweet.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Jemi - I'm looking forward to it.

John Klawitter said...

It's interesting that you mention Elmore Leonard in this context. When he gets it right (and, in my easily ignored opinion, he doesn't always) he is such a master-writer. I learned, I think, as much from Leonard as Hemingway. If you're giving stories away, send me the one of yours that pleases you most in this context, and I'll send you a copy of FOUL, a story that gave me writerly fits until I figured out how to do it (the protagonist is an aphasiac epileptic, and you'll be amused when I confess I was originally trying to write it 1st person narr.
But if you want a pdf of FOUL, make sure you get me an email addy. If you don't want it, say so and I'll understand, Coals to Newcastle and all that.
john klawitter

Terry Odell said...

John, I'm happy to send you a book, but please email me at the address in the referenced post and let me know which one you'd want. I don't want to send you something you're not going to enjoy, and since I'm hoping for reviews, obviously I'd prefer to send something that will resonate with you.

John Klawitter said...

Send me the novel of yours that you believe most successfully illustrates the topic you brought up: voice.
John K

Hart Johnson said...

It's so funny how some people struggle so much with voice and others fall into it so easily. I think it comes much more easily for those of us who have written as ourselves for a long time--blogging helps, though I was a letter writer for years, so I think my voice has always just always been stable and present. I have heard the same though--that I speak like I write (this may extend from actually being more comfortable on paper than in person, now that I think about it). I write really varied genres, too--Cozy mystery at one end and dark YA at the other, but people who know me still see me in there.

Terry Odell said...

Hart, yes, I agree that the author's voice will show regardless of the pseudonym, genre, you name it. JD Robb is Nora Roberts, and her voice shows.

Maryann Miller said...

Great reminder about voice. Sometimes I think we are on the same creative wavelength, Terry. I just went through part of my WIP and cut the man's dialogue by about 25%. I was reading through a scene and had one of those aha moments. He was beginning to sound like the female protagonist, so I knew I had to go back and change his dialogue. People who don't write don't understand how much work this all is. LOL

Terry Odell said...

Maryann - I agree; sometimes cyberspace sends out vibes and we all get connected! I've noticed a couple other posts about voice today in my blog hopping.

Karen Emanuelson said...

I enjoy your posts and think they are informative. I hate to do this, but I must disagree with a common fallacy, which you state in this voice essay: Men speak less than women. Actually, when I was in graduate school, one of my classmates examined this. There has been extensive research that involves tape recording & then actually counting words, etc. and men speak far more than women. Women are perceived as talking more if they exceed the amount of words that are "acceptable" for women, as women are to be seen and not heard--yes, even to this day.

Shelley Munro said...

Good post, Terry. Voice is something that I found difficult at first, but it certainly developed as I wrote more and relaxed. A beginner writer is often paralyzed by the "so-called" rules, and their writing is stiff and can be lifeless. The more practice, the easier the process becomes, so the advice to sit down and write is great advice!

Karen C said...

Enjoy your anniversary celebration!!